Sangam Age: Economy

  • The era of Sangam or Sangam Age refers to the Early Historic period in South India,and this spatio-cultural unit covers the regions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, located inthe extreme south, and bounded by the seas on three sides. This period is contemporary to the time of the Mauryas, the Sungas, the Indo-Greeks, Kushanas, and Satavahanas, who ruled in other parts of India. The developments in the Sangam Age can not be seen in isolation; although the language used in this area was Tamil, the historical and cultural developments show connections with others parts of India and also with the Indian Ocean region, influencing this region. The economy of this period shows diversity and prosperity when compared to the early period and coins and script were introduced for the first time in history. The material cultural wealth revealed by the literature and archaeology do reveal the economic prosperity in some contexts, at least to a certain degree when compared to the preceding cultural period.
  • The Iron Age in South India was a formative culture period and the Early Historic period succeeded the Iron Age, which is generally placed from ca. 1300 BCE to 300BCE. The Sangam Age, known so because of the association called Sangam that compiled the texts of this period, is placed between 300 BCE and 300 CE. But, these texts may have been compiled into anthologies in the later period than their original composition. The polity of the Sangam Age was dominated by the Vendars known asthe Cholas, the Pandiyas and the Cheras, and numerous other small political entitiesor chiefs.
  • The references to these larger political entities in the inscriptions of Asoka, besides the vast corpus of texts known as Sangam literature, mark the beginning ofthe Early Historic in South India. The Sangam corpus is the main, important source of information for this cultural period. The Sangam literature has references to the ways of life and the economic activities of the people from all walks of life. The evidence from the Sangam literature is corroborated by the Tamil inscriptions, the Asokan inscriptions, the Greco-Roman sources and archaeological evidence. Several scholars have contributed to the understanding of the Sangam Age. The early studies focussed on the investigation of literature; however, later studies have shifted their attention to the Indo-Roman trade. Archaeological excavations of megalithic burials and the habitation sites have contributed to the understanding of the cultural developments.
Sangam Period


  • The sources available for the study of the Sangam Age economy are many and they are the Sangam Tamil texts, the Greco-Roman and Sanskrit Sources, the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, the Asokan inscriptions and the archaeological sites and materials.

Sangam Tamil Texts

  • The Eighteen major works of the Sangam corpus include the Ettutogai, the eightanthologies and the Pattupattu, the ten long poems.
  • The Ettutogai poems are: Aingkurnuru, Ahananuru, Purananuru, Kalittogai, Kuruntogai, Nattrinai, Paripatal and Patitruppattu.
  • The Pattupattu texts are Tirumurukarruppatai, Kurincippattu, Malaipatukatam, Maturaikkanci, Mullaippattu, Netunalvatai, Pattinappalai, Perumpanarruppatai, Porunararruppatai and Cirupanarruppatai.
  • The Eighteen works of the later period and the Five Epics offerinformation on the early medieval period or Post-Sangam in date. These texts provide data on the landscapes, culture and the eco-cultural contexts.

The Greco-Roman Texts

  • Because of the external connectivity of the Tamil region in the Early Historic period,the foreign accounts talk about the maritime activities of the Tamizhagam.
  • Strabo’s account, the Periplus Marei Erythreae (Casson 1989), and Ptolemy’s account are the important sources for the development and the economy in this period (Warmington 1928), in addition to the Sanskrit texts including the Ramayana.


  • The Asokan inscriptions, especially the Rock Edict II, mention about the polities and the efforts of Asoka in undertaking welfare activities such as planting of herbs andmedical facilities for the benefit of human and animals.
  • The Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions found along the trade routes on the rockshelters with carved stone bedsfor the monks (mostly the Jains), and those on pottery reveal the nature and activities of the merchants and their diverse backgrounds and the development of script and literacy.

Archaeological Sources

  • The archaeological sources for this period include the abundant megalithic burials andthe rich variety of material culture from these burials including the iron, ceramics, copper, gold, carnelian, quartz artifacts and beads and the rare Roman coins.

Roman Coins and Local Coins

  • The coins of the Roman origin (Turner 1989) and the Punch marked coins (Vanaja 1983) and the issues of the local rulers, namely, the Chola, Pandya, Chera, Malayaman and other rules reveal about the nature of transactions and the nature of monetization of the early period.

Excavated Archaeological Sites

  • The excavated archaeological sites, both burials and habitation sites, form animportant source.
  • The excavation of the port sites such as Arikamedu, Azhagankulam, Kaveripumpattinam, Korkai, Uraiyur, Kanchipuram and Keezhati in Tamil Nadu and Pattanam in Kerala and the numerous burial sites such as Sanur, Kodumanal and Adichanallur (sites of interior region) offer information on the material culture of the Iron Age-Early Historic period.
  • The excavated sites have also revealed evidencefor extensive material cultural production. They reveal evidence of trade as well as craft production.

Sangam Age: Economic activities

  • The economic activities of the Sangam Age increased when compared to the Iron Ageand this prosperity is very clearly reflected in the archaeological record revealed through the excavations as wells the literature of Indigenous and foreign origins.
  • The economic activities of the Sangam Age can be divided into primary production including hunting-gathering-fishing, agriculture and pastoralism, craft production as well as exchange and commercial activities.
  • The polity of the Sangam Age was dominated by the Vendars of the Cholas, the Pandiyas and the Cheras, and numerousother small political entities. There are debates over the existence of state. The early formations were a kind of chiefdoms, but these polities can not be categorised as mere “primitive,” “tribalentities without any territorial control.
  • At the same time they cannot be called even asan early form of state. They exercised power over territories by frequently attackingand involving in battles, adopted rituals that sought to legitimize their position.

The Landscapes and the Economic Activities

  • The economic activities of the landscapes could be seen from the perspectives of the early Tamil texts. According to the classification of the Sangam literature, the territories of Tamil region consisted of the Kurinji, Marutam, Mullai, Neytal and Palaitracts.
  • The Kurinji (Mountainous) zone was occupied by the hill people who were involved in hunting-gathering and shifting cultivation and gathering of forest produce.
  • The Mullai landscape covered the forest zone, often scrub forest, had the pastoralgroups.
  • The Marutam territory, the riverine zone, had agriculturalists and farmers and the people were mainly involved in rice cultivation.
  • The Neytal, the coastal tract, had mainly fishermen who were involved in fishing, salt making, and also participated in trade and commercial activities.
  • The Palai, Dry arid zone, and often the mullai territory became palai in the dry seasons, had hunting, pastoralism and robbery, because of its lack of natural resources.

Kurinji and the Economic Activities

  • The people of the Kurinji were called Kuravars, Kurattiyars and Vettuvars. The people of the Kurinji lands were involved in hunting and gathering.
  • They gathered roots, fruits and sweet potatoes and the forest produce. They were also involved in hunting of small games and small scale farming of millets such as ragi and tinai and collection of fruits such as jackfruit, and honey.
  • Agriculture was also undertaken during the monsoon. People collected wild varieties of paddy and the variousrice crops called aivanam, torai and vennel are mentioned in the literature. Tinai rice was cultivated and its finds reference in the literature. The wild variety of rice was grown. These people also collected the forest produce. Pepper, aram (Sandal) and Akil were collected and perhaps exchanged for the produce from other regions.

Mullai and the Economic Activities

  • The Mullai region refers to the forested territories. Generally, it is not the dense forested area, but with scrub forests and pastures.
  • This territory mostly lies in the central part of Tamil Nadu and mostly in the upper altitude, not very close to the coast.
  • Animal husbandry was the main activity and mainly cowherds and shepherds were the people involved in these activities. They were known as Ayar and their women’s folk were called Aychiyar. Milk related products such as curd and butter were mainly produced. Rain-fed farming was also practiced. Tinai and Varahu werethe main crops. A system of barter was in existence between the people of different zones.

Marutam and the Economic Activities

  • Marutam refers to the wet-land in the riverine delta area. The people were called Uzhavars and Uzhathiyars. In the fertile, riverine tracts with lush agricultural fields, the main crop was rice with many varieties, i.e., sennel and putunel. Perennial waterbodies and streams nurtured the fertile lands. The fertile lands were called vayal, ceru, kazhani, and pazhanam Malaipatukatam.

Neytal and the Economic Activities

  • Fishing was the main occupation of this land. Salt manufacturing was also widely practiced. Pearl fishery was also undertaken. Trade in various goods took place in the coastal areas. The people were called Valayar and Paratavar. This region also hadmany ports and Pattanams that became commercial and urban centres.

Palai and the Economic Activities

  • The Palai region being arid and dry did not provide any major base for economicactivities, except hunting-gathering. The people here resorted to robbery of those whowere passing the region from the other zones, mostly traders. The people were called Maravar.

Primary Production

  • Although the above mentioned categories of the text based classification are relevant and they can be considered to represent only the part of the reality, but not all the components of a particular zone. These categorized were idealized, generalized formsthat were meant for literary compositions. In reality, there must have been overlap of territories, and communal and social lives of the people and these landscape categories cannot be taken to complete reflection of reality. The real life must have been more complex.


  • Agriculture was practiced in different scales across the regions. Vennel (white rice), ivananel, torai, sennel (red rice) and putunel (new rice) are mentioned in the literature, which obviously suggests that several varieties of rice were cultivated. Agriculture was practiced at segmented lands known as vayal, ceru, kalani and pazhanam. Karikalan, the Chola king, is said to have converted the forest for cultivation, dugtanks built an embankment along the river Kaveri (Pattinapalai 283-284). The farmerswere called Uzhavars who ploughed the field. The chieftains of the agricultural population were known as Velir. The traditional method of sowing the seeds in the field which is fertilized with animal manure and vegetable waste was followed (Perumpanarrupatai 153-54, Cirupanarrupatai 136-137). The selection of seed spreceded the sowing. In the dry areas, millets were cultivated and in the hills shifting cultivation was undertaken. Thus wide varieties of crops were cultivated and theywere exchanged and traded across the region.


  • Pastoralism was common in the forested terrains mostly in the central part of TamilNadu. The fight for cattle was also common and sometimes it led to skirmishes among the people. The warriors who were killed in such fights were honoured by erecting hero stones. The hero stones are frequently mentioned in the literature andthey appear in the context of the pastoral region, i.e. Mullai tracts. The goods such ascurd and butter and other produce were exchanged. Sheep-goat pastoralism was also prevalent as revealed by the references in the texts as well as the animal bones from archaeological context. The meat of the goat was relished and the poems offer proof for this.


  • Hunting-gathering also contributed to the economy. People hunted animals and they were trade. There is evidence of trade/barter in animal meat and forest produce. Fishing was the main occupation in the coastal area and fish was exchanged for paddy. The people also collected the gems and precious stones found in the territoryand even animal products, elephant tusks were also traded. The gathered forest produced was exchanged for various goods. Evidence for the exchange of ivory for toddy is also found in the literature.

Salt Making

  • Salt, an important commodity used in food, also served as a preservative material. The people from the coast produced salt and the salt traders called Umanars are frequently mentioned in the Tamil literature.

Craft Specialization

  • Craft specialization is another hallmark of the Sangam Age. Craft specialization musthave begun in the Iron Age. In the Sangam texts, blacksmiths were known as kollans. Several settlements may have had one kollan workshop, Kuruntogai 172, 5-6.Archaeological and textual sources shed light on the craft productions and craft specialization in ancient Tamil country. Among the crafts, iron smelting, pottery making and stone-bead making were perhaps well established in the Iron Age itself as fulltime specialized crafts, and these crafts persons were distributed all across the landscapes, because of the widespread demand for these craft products. In the Early Historic period, gem stone cutting, shell and glass bead industries became active, but they were limited to certain centres.

Crafts and Industries

  • The reference to the craftsmen with specific name and the exclusive ceris (colonies)of shell bangle makers mentioned in the Sangam literature points to their specialized nature and is also suggestive of some kind of organization among the craftsmen, and perhaps full-time occupation in the urban areas. Distinct references to goldsmiths and gold merchants are perhaps an indication that the craftsmen and traders were specialising in certain commodities. Weaving must have been a major industry as revealed from the evidence of spindle whorls, a piece of woven cloth from Kodumanal, and a structure identified as dyeing vat from Uraiyur, and the referencesto various types of clothes in Sangam literature and Greco-Roman literature. Many ofthe industries were active mainly in the urban areas, industrial centres, raw material source and coastal port towns, while iron and ceramic industries were active acrossthe landscapes.

Iron Industry

  • Iron industry was the main stay of the economy, and it supported the political fights, pastoral activities, agriculture and hunting and fishing. Thus iron industry served the people in all ecozones and it was produced extensively by the blacksmiths. Iron objects were also traded. While iron smelting sites are limited in number, iron working sites are larger in number. Not all the habitation sites have evidence for ironsmelting, but iron working took place at more number of sites. The abundant depositsof iron in the burials especially the swords suggest their large scale production. They were also present with the chiefs and made all types of weapons of war. Regarding the weapons, the common types include swords, axes, daggers, arrow heads, spearheads, knives and tridents. In Tamil Nadu, 40 sites out of the total 97 excavated megalithic sites have yielded iron objects.
Iron Furnace Sites
  • The people had achieved the capability for producing high quality iron objects. Evidence of iron production is found at many sites across Tamil Nadu. Iron was used by various communities according to the need. Evidence of furnaces has been foundat Guttur excavated by Madras University, and Kodumanal excavated by Tamil University (Rajan 1994). From disturbed contexts, furnaces have been documented at Melsiruvallur by Sharatha Srinivasan and at Perungalur by Sasisekaran. The furnace from Guttur measured in size, 2.2 m in length, 0.63 m in width, 0.45 m in depth, andit was capable of producing cast iron. The iron objects from these sites had 2.5 to 5 %of carbon. Kodumanal, TN is another well documented site, where wootz crucible steel was produced. Evidence of magnetite iron Source is found at Chennimalai near Kodumanal area. A circular bowl furnace measuring 115 cm x 65 cm was found and the carbon content of cutting edge of a sword was 0.8 % and the edge is harder than the centre, suggesting good skill in iron metallurgy.

Gold working

  • Gold working was an important occupation, perhaps with the arrival of Roman gold, it became common. Gold working activities were undertaken at select sites. Traders ingold and goldsmith are evidenced in the literature and evidence of gold working isfound at a few sites. Gold objects have been found from many excavations. The megalithic burials have also produced gold jewellery. Gold ornamentsand goldsmiths are also described in the literature.

Glass Bead Industry

  • Glass bead was introduced in this period and bead making industrial evidence is reported from the sites of Arikamedu and Kudikkadu. Glass beads were traded in the interior and also in the far off regions and the demand for the colourful stones and the limited availability of the materials perhaps forced the people to produce glass objects in a large number.

Stone Bead and Ornament Working

  • Evidence for stone bead and ornament manufacture has been found at numerous sites. The archaeological sites such as Kodumanal, Arikamedu, Kudikkadu, Alagankulamand Pattanam in Kerala have produced evidence for working of stone beads andornaments. The ornaments produced at these sites were sold in the interior markets. The production centres existed near the markets where the raw materials could beeasily sourced. The tradition of etched carnelian beads goes back to the Iron Age. The carnelian material was probably acquired from Gujarat region. Not only the stone beads were made for the local market and sometimes the blanks were also exportedfor the overseas market. Quartz, amethyst, carnelian, garnet, crystal, soapstone, emerald, beryl and various other stones and their waste materials have been found in the archaeological excavations.

Shell Bangle working

  • Shell bangle working was another important industry that flourished in the coastal area. The excavated sites of Arikamedu, Kudikkadu, Algankulam and Korkai haveproduced evidence for this industry. Shells of Turbinella pyrum variety were recovered from the Pamban sea by the Paravars and they were exported and people wore the bangles made by cutting these shells. The shell cutters settlements are mentioned in the Sangam literature as existing near the town of Korkai. Perhaps reference to these shells also occurs in the Arthasastra as Pandiya Kavataka.

Textile Industry

  • The textile industry was in a well developed form and it is revealed by archaeological as well as textual evidence. The urban dwellers attired themselves with cotton and silk clothes. The clothes weredecorated with floral designs. The mountainous and forest people wore the dresses made of flowers and leaves. They also wore the dress made of wool. At the site of Uraiyur, a dyeing vat was found indicating that the ancient Tamils dyed their clothes. There is a reference to Argartic in Ptolemy’s work, a fine cloth fromancient Tamizhagam. The inscription at Alagarmalai refers to Aruvai vanigan, amerchant of textile. Clothes from the East Asia and Southeast Asia and Orissa also came to the Tamil region. There is reference to Kalingam as a type of clothe, in the Tamil literature.

Sangam Age: Land Grants

  • This period saw the extension of land under cultivation and settlements through land grants to brahmanas which was exempt from various taxes and dues.
    • Most of these lands were virign forests but grants were also made for regions which were already under cultivation.
    • The ruling families derived economic advantage as when such lands were brought under cultivation it would lead to increase in resource base.
  • Grants ensured that the rulers received support from the brahmins. The religious texts also sanctioned such grants. This was to ensure that the brahmans received their subsistence.
    • Land grants were also given to non brahmin religious establishments such as buddhists and jain temples.
  • Land gifts to officials also became prominent during the Gupta and the Post Gupta period. Land grants led to new class of land owners emerging. Kings who had been defeated continued to rule over their lands after accepting the suzerainty of the new powers. This meant that the king would become a vassal and send tribute to the new lord by sharing revenue from the land.
  • The reach of water resources was an important consideration in the spread of rural areas. There was increase in canals, lakes, wells and irrigation facilities like tanks. These were referred using different names like Keres (tanks, Nadi (river), Araghatta (wells), Srota (water channel) and Vapis (step wells).
  • Land grants paved the way for emergence of a feudal system in India.

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